We have already made it clear that we intend to introduce the voluntary principle for student unions. We are currently completing our consultations on the role of campus unions and the National Union of Students, and their use of public funds. In the light of these consultations, we are considering proposals for action which my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State expects to announce very shortly.
I am sure that my hon. Friend is aware that the vast majority of university students find that they have to belong to a student union, which may do or say some extraordinary things in their name. Should not students have the freedom to decide for themselves whether they wish to belong to a student union? Will my hon. Friend confirm that the Government will take action to give students that freedom of choice?
Does not the Minister agree that the growing problems of student hardship, graduate unemployment and the increased need for welfare services should be a far higher priority for him to tackle in higher education than the partly political—I cannot speak today, Madam Speaker —the party-politically motivated attacks by the Conservative party on individual student unions?
The hon. Gentleman may not be able to speak today, but he can whinge, and that he has done. I am surprised by what he has said: he gives no credit for our recent publication of the draft further and higher education charters, which are designed to give new rights and an information revolution to students. I am surprised that he did not acknowledge the huge increase in the total amount of student support which has been achieved through the success of the student loan scheme—which has even been acknowledged by The Times. I am also surprised that he did not acknowledge the 46 per cent. increase in student numbers over the past four years.
Will my hon. Friend confirm that the system of student support in the United Kingdom is more generous than that of any other country in the European Community? Will he further confirm that since student loans were introduced there has been an increase rather than a decrease in the numbers applying for higher education?
Will the Minister confirm that for the overwhelming majority of student unions the amount of public support for their activities is sometimes only one fifth or one sixth of their total expenditure? Will the Minister join me in welcoming the work of student unions in welfare, counselling and job finding? Will he take it from me that, having made nearly 20 visits to universities this year, I found that not one Vice-Chancellor had a bad word to say about the running of the student union in his university?
Given the obvious stress that many students are under and the many tragedies that we have read and heard about this year, should not this work be better supported? Would not the Minister do better to ignore the bile and spite from the duds on the Conservative Back Benches, and take a positive view and give a firm commitment that the Government will not publish consultation papers during either the recess of the House or that of the universities?
The hon. Gentleman seems to have got out of bed on the wrong side today. I am surprised at the language he has used. I am equally surprised at his apparent wilful failure to recognise the importance of the principle of voluntary membership, the importance of proper accountability for public funds and, not least, the vital importance of avoiding victimisation of individuals. The hon. Gentleman, in his consultations, may not have heard about some of the things that have taken place in the past. If he has heard about them, I hope that he will not condone them. In return, I will concede one point: we recognise through our consultations the importance of proper services for students, and our proposals, when they are announced, will reflect that fact.
Will my hon. Friend confirm that a great deal of money could be saved if paid student sabbaticals for officers of student unions were ended and if the presidents of student unions did that job without pay or a sabbatical, as they always used to?
I recall that in the days when I was a president of my college junior common room I received no remuneration for it. That should essentially be a matter for the student union and the institution. I have heard my hon. Friend's trenchant comments and I can assure him that the voluntary principle will make these matters much more accountable to the student body as a whole.